LIFE OF SALLUST
Gaius Sallustius Crispus was born in the year B.C. 86, at Amiternum, an
ancient Sabine town, situated in the heart of the Apennines, about sixty miles northeast
of Rome. Of his early youth we have no definite information. From his writings, however,
it is evident that he was a diligent student of both Greek and Latin literature. Indeed,
as he tells us in his introduction to the Bellum Catilinae, he was at first
inclined to devote his life to historical studies. But at that time there was very little
encouragement to enter the field of literature; and Sallust, like most young Romans of
ability, was drawn into the whirl of politics. As he was a plebeian by birth, he naturally
identified himself with the people's party, and always remained a consistent democrat.
We first hear of Sallust as tribune of the plebs in 52. For some time trouble
had been brewing between two notorious demagogues, Clodius and Milo. Clodius had hired a
band of gladiators as a body guard, and Milo had not been slow to follow his example. In
consequence of this, the streets of Rome were disturbed by almost daily conflicts between
these desperadoes, At last, on the 20th of January, 52, the two gangs met, - this time
apparently by accident, - and, in the struggle which followed, Clodius, being wounded, was
dragged off and slain by the ruffians of Milo. Sallust, it is said, had once been severely
beaten by Milo for being too attentive to his dissolute wife. Whether he bore him a grudge
for this thrashing, or merely seized this opportunity of attacking him as a political
opponent, we do not know; but at any rate it is certain that Sallust made several
impassioned speeches against Milo, and did everything in his power to increase the fury of
the mob at the murder of Clodius. Milo was soon forced into exile. But, two years later,
the senatorial party had its revenge through Appius Claudius, the censor, who expelled
Sallust and several other members of the popular party from the Senate. Sallust was
removed on the ground that he was leading a shamefully immoral life. In all probability he
was no worse than many who were allowed to remain; but it was a convenient excuse for
paying off old scores.
When the civil war broke out in 49, Sallust promptly went to Caesar's camp,
and soon afterward took part in the disastrous campaign against Pompey in Illyricum. In
47, as praetor-elect, he was reinstated in the Senate. He seems to have won the entire
confidence of Caesar, who sent him on several important missions. For instance, when, on
the eve of starting for Africa, Caesar's veterans had mutinied and had slain the senators
who ventured to address them, Caesar finally deputed Sallust to confer with them. He
undertook this dangerous task, but failed to conciliate the angry soldiers, and barely
escaped with his life. However, he was more successful in the campaign in Africa, during
which he rendered valuable assistance to Caesar by capturing the island of Cercina and
supplying him with the grain which the Pompeians had deposited there. After the war,
Sallust received the proconsulship of the reorganized province of Africa. Here, like most
Roman provincial governors, he amassed an immense fortune. On returning to Rome he was
tried before Caesar for extortion, but was acquitted. He used his wealth in laying out the
celebrated gardens (horti Sallustiani) near the porta Salaria on the
Quirinal hill, where he also built a palatial residence for himself.
After the death of Caesar in B.C. 44, Sallust retired from public life, and,
returning to the ambition of his younger days, devoted his leisure to Roman history. He
died in B.C. 35, leaving his house and gardens to his sister's grandson. These afterward
became the favorite resort of Nero, Nerva, and other Roman emperors.
Sallust undertook to write on special periods of Roman history. As these
are closely related to each other in time, it may have been his plan ultimately to weld
them together so as to make a connected account of the century in which Rome gradually
changed from a republic into an empire.
His first effort was the Bellum Catilinae, a subject with which he
must have been thoroughly familiar, because as a young man, twenty-three years old, he was
an eye-witness of the exciting events which took place in B.C. 63, and because he was
personally acquainted with many who were concerned in the conspiracy. The work is
especially valuable for the light it throws on the politics and morals of the time. In
Sallust's view the plot may be regarded as the natural outgrowth of widespread debt and
great corruption among the Romans.
The Bellum Catilinae was followed by the Bellum Iugurthinum, a
picturesque account of the wily Numidian prince, who bribed Roman senators and generals
alike, but who was at last captured by Sulla, and put to death in the Mamertine prison. In
this narrative, Sallust's main object seems to have been to depict the baseness of the
senatorial order in the most striking colors.
Sallust's last work was a history in five books, Historiarum Libri Quinque,
embracing the important period between Sulla's death, B.C. 78, and Cicero's praetorship,
B.C. 67. Of this, unfortunately, we cannot judge, as only four speeches and two letters
SALLUST AS A HISTORIAN
The early Roman historians were mere annalists. The best of them, writing
in Greek, simply recorded events in their order, without giving their causes or results.
Cato the Censor, B.C. 184, was the first annalist to write in Latin, but he possessed no
literary style, nor did any of the historians who closely followed him. More than a
century later, Cicero declared that Sisenna (Sallust's immediate predecessor) easily
excelled all the Roman historians before his time; but he significantly added that even
Sisenna's history was to a certain extent puerile.
It was precisely at this period, when cultured Romans were displaying
undisguised contempt for the efforts of their countrymen to write history, that Sallust's
ambition was aroused. He proposed to do for Roman history what Thucydides had done for the
Greek, -viz. to treat the subject philosophically, and at the same time to maintain a high
standard of literary style. For this he was unusually well qualified. In the first place,
he was no mere student, but a practical man of affairs, who had gained wide experience in
Roman politics, and had been intimately associated with many of the ablest men of his
time. This gave him a breadth of view and a grasp of the true significance of events, such
as we look for in vain even in so versatile a man as Cicero.
Again, Sallust was unusually painstaking in his search after the truth. For
example, before writing the Bellum lugurthinum, he took care to have many
Carthaginian documents translated for him. To insure greater accuracy he is said to have
commissioned a Greek secretary to prepare a complete synopsis of Roman history for use in
his daily work.
Finally, he was master of a clear, incisive, picturesque style, peculiarly
adapted to the interesting presentation of historical facts.
With such qualifications, it is no wonder that he at once established a high
reputation as a historian, and succeeded to some degree in rivalling his Greek model.
It would be idle to claim that Sallust as a historian had no faults. But in
considering these, it is only fair to remember that our conception of history differs
widely from that of the ancients. In Sallust's time, and for several centuries afterward,
history was regarded as merely a branch of rhetoric, i.e. greater emphasis was to be laid
on the language and style of the history than on the facts. We must not be surprised,
therefore, that Sallust, in common with other Greek and Roman historians who regarded
history from this point of view, wrote elaborate introductions, put imaginary speeches
into the mouths of his principal characters, and dared to portray their secret motives and
thoughts as minutely as any realistic novelist of our own day would do. We may even
understand how the stress laid on the rhetorical side of history would tend to produce
that occasional neglect of geography and chronology, which we find, but cannot excuse, in
There are, besides, several inaccuracies in his version of Catiline's
conspiracy, for which he has been severely criticised. But in this connection it should be
remembered that although it was, in one sense, an advantage to treat of a period which
came under his personal observation, on the other hand it was a distinct disadvantage to
write before sufficient time had elapsed to enable obscure details to clear up, and the
whole truth to be thoroughly sifted out. Yet, when against Sallust's faults we balance his
virtues, when we consider his broad philosophy, his freedom from superstition, his respect
for the truth, his absolute impartiality, his powerful descriptions of Roman politics and
society, his cleverness in character sketching, it is not surprising that he left a
profound impression on his age. He was for a time overshadowed by Livy. But the
development of a school of historians who took Sallust for their model attests the triumph
of his genius over that of his rival, and warrants us in accepting Martial's estimate of
him as primus Romana Crispus in historia.
Sallust's style is very different from that of his predecessors, Caesar
and Cicero. For while their writing is smooth and regular, Sallust's is strong and abrupt,
at times startling in its sudden changes, often almost volcanic in action. In many
particulars Sallust resembles Carlyle. He displays the same rugged individuality, the same
fondness for unusual words and expressions, the same power of graphic description, the
same proneness to moral reflection, the same tone of sarcastic criticism in dealing with
men's faults and vices, that characterize the Scotch philosopher.
The picturesqueness, vigor, and intensity of Sallust's style were greatly
admired by his countrymen. But the best evidence of the true value of his writings is
found in the fact that time only served to increase the appreciation of them, and that
they continued to be popular even in the Middle Ages.
Following are the special characteristics of Sallust's style, of which the
reader will find abundant illustration in the text of the Bellum Catilinae.
I. Variety of expression, as seen (a) in the use of different forms of the same
word, e.g. domi and domui locative; (b) in the government of
different cases by the same word, thus expers is followed by both the genitive and
the ablative in the same sentence; (c) in an entire change of construction, as Eis
amicis sociisque confisus Catilina, simul quod, etc.; (d) in the combination of
both singular and plural verbs with a single subject, cf. iuventus . . . favebant . . .
malebant; (e) in the alteration of stereotyped expressions, as mari atque
terra, for terra marique; (f) in coupling an adverb with an abstract
noun governed by per, as honeste . . . per turpitudinem.
II. Repetition, (a) of introductory words like igitur; (b) of any
rare word shortly after its first occurrence.
III. Brevity, produced partly by the omission of connectives and forms of the verb sum,
and partly by a short, pithy manner of expression.
IV. Frequency of the historical infinitive, in order to carry the action swiftly and
strongly to a dramatic conclusion.
V. Constant alliteration, as facinus . . . faceret.
VI. Chiasmus, as viget aetas, animus valet.
VII. Archaisms, (a) in spelling; (b) in obsolete words. These, however,
are not so common as to disturb the reader. They give a certain quaintness to the
narrative, which is more pleasing than otherwise. Most of the archaisms occur in the
speeches, and invest them with dignity and stateliness.
VIII. Colloquialisms. Sallust often drew upon the vigorous every-day speech of the
people, but never resorted to anything that could be called vulgar.